October 15, 2020

How we have been preparing for the not-yet

Jeanne van Heeswijk, Season 1, Beyond the Now

As an artist I have been working collectively with different kinds of publics for three decades. To me the investigative and exploratory qualities of the arts should serve a process in which we can collectively learn how we can engage and act upon the world in order to renegotiate the conditions of our existence. For me it is important to think, how can the qualities of the arts serve this process? When I’m speaking about practice, it’s not a singular practice but a collaborative undertaking that shapes durational commitments.

Our immediate environments have been, for a long time, under the pressure of globalisation. More and more people feel left out of the way that their daily environment is shaped, formed, governed and financed, and this quite often leads to a serious disconnect between people, institutions and governments. In my work I always question the ways in which we can not only take matters into our own hands in relation to the future of our areas, but how we can collectively try to imagine futures that are more just and that include more of our narratives and histories than at present.

I create fields of interaction, circumscribed by questions around how can we shape the place we live in. How can we find ways in which we want to live together in this rapidly changing world? How can we get a grip on the process of design, regulations, policy making and how can people join and influence these processes? How can people have their say and take responsibilities? To me these are political questions, and they are also questions of the imaginary. They are questions of political imaginaries.

For me, David Harvey’s notion of the right of the city is essential for this purpose. He argues that in order to build cities towards our hearts desire (he literally uses heart’s desire), we have to understand that this is not an individual desire but a collective process. There is a very difficult balance to be found between collective and individual desires, individual desires to live well, to have a safe and healthy environment with your family, to have food on the table, to be able to have work, to be able to send your kids to school as well as a collective negotiation of what that could mean for the city as a whole.

Brick by Brick and Loaf by Loaf We Build Ourselves. Photo: Homebaked Community Land Trust (CLT)

In the work, this very difficult balance between the individual desires and the collective urgency plays out, and Covid has just emphasized the need to develop collectively. What is now emergent is the work lots of people have already been doing to prepare for a moment like this.

How can we find ways to balance between the individual desires and the collective urgencies that are at work in the local? Repetitively asking how we can turn our political and economic choices into concrete actions for change. How to move towards collective action despite our differences? How can we listen to the emotional condition of our city and act collectively upon it?

Currently we are in breakdown, a form of instability of not knowing, a darkness, about the future. How can one prepare themselves for moving outside of darkness, when they are still submerged, and it seems there is no outside? If the light is the only thing that we’re preparing for, then we are very ill-equipped, because then we’re only undoing darkness. And I don’t think we have to undo darkness; we have to embody darkness in order to understand if there is a darkness that we can operate. Often when thinking about the future, it’s like, “Okay, how are we going to get out of here into there?”. And “into there” is always a better place. But it may very well be a worse place, especially if the neo-liberal capitalist operatus continues, as we’ve learned in life, and this pandemic being an example. Or as Ursula K. Le Guin says “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.” So when the future is so unknown, how do we train for this, for the ‘Not-Yet’? ‘Training for the Not-Yet’ is a foundational part of my practice, which I have been researching and practicing for years.

Jeanne van Heeswijk, Trainings For The Not-Yet at BAK basis voor actuele kunst, Brick by Brick and Loaf by Loaf We Build Ourselves, Homebaked installation, 2019. Photo: Tom Janssen

One key tenant to training for the not-yet is about withholding, because withholding is about creating spaces in which people might be able to step into another’s reality. It’s about renegotiating one’s own subject’s position, but also renegotiating one’s own desire for things to happen. And questioning who can afford to take that risk. Often our subjectivity only allows us to access our own desires, ones that serve ourselves, that respond to our histories, that respond to our past. If we renegotiate these desires, then what is it that we can commit ourselves to that are not realities of one’s own, that are not ours or mine?

It is about practicing modes of embodied being together and thinking about which different realities need sharing and practice. What are the ways we can commit ourselves to share in different realities that are non-linear or are not there yet to be fulfilled? To create space for this but while doing so not replicating the same problems, the same structures and to create pathways, emotional, physical even financial that allow people to be there, to show up and take time to imagine.